We’ve got real estate tycoons and we’ve got stock market tycoons. We’ve even got wealthy bond investors such as Bill Gross who pulls in over $100 million a year. Now that the markets have recovered from the financial downturn, I’d like to have an open discussion on which asset class provides the the most amount of wealth over the long run.
It’s important to realize there are no renter or cash tycoons. The return on rent is always -100% every single month. Meanwhile, the return on cash averages a paltry 0.1% nationwide, even after the Fed rate hike. You can certainly be a wealthy renter with tons of cash in the bank. But your wealth was accumulated through other means so don’t get confused. Having a money strength grade of F- is no way to go.
In this article I will explain to you why I have a preference for real estate over stocks (equities). Both have proven worthy of building great wealth over time. However, let me share with you why I have a preference for real estate in my net worth composition by comparing both asset classes.
REASONS WHY REAL ESTATE IS BETTER THAN STOCKS
1) You are more in control. Every physical real estate investment you make puts you in charge as CEO. As CEO, you are able to make improvements, cut costs (refinance your mortgage now that rates are back down), raise rents, and market accordingly. Of course you are still at the mercy of the economic cycle, but overall you have much more leeway in making wealth optimizing decisions. When you invest in a public or private company, you are a minority investor who puts his or her faith in management. Sometimes managers commit fraud or blow their companies to smithereens. Nobody cares more about your investment than you.
2) Leverage with other people’s money. Leverage in a rising market is a wonderful thing. Even if real estate only tracks inflation over the long run, a 3% increase on a 20% downpayment is a 15% return. In five years you will have more than doubled your equity at this rate. Leverage also kills on the way down, but real estate is very difficult to trade so you will most likely stay put unless things get really dire.
3) Tax advantageous. Not only can you deduct the interest on up to $1.1 million in mortgage indebtedness on your primary home, you can also sell your primary home for tax free profits up to $250,000 for singles and $500,000 for married couples if you live in the home for the last two of a five year period. If you are in the 28% or higher tax bracket, it behooves you to own property. All expenses associated with managing your rental properties are also deductible towards your income. Income limits do apply however, so make sure you don’t make much more than ~$166,000 a year total.
4) Tangible asset. Real estate is something you can see, feel, and utilize. Stocks aren’t event pieces of paper anymore, but ticker symbols and numbers. When the world comes to an end, you can seek shelter in your property. Real estate is one of the three pillars for survival, the other two being food and shelter.
5) Easier to analyze and quantify If you can calculate realistic expenses and rental income that’s all you really need when it comes down to valuing a piece of property. If you can borrow at 4% and rent out for a 6% yield, you’ve likely found yourself a winner. Real estate is immediately arbitrageable if you have the financial means to invest. There’s not only the cash flow component but the underlying equity component that helps investors build wealth. Stocks require you to trust what the company reports. There are countless ways for companies to massage their numbers to make things look better than they really are e.g. adjusting accounts receivables, adding one off gains, and using various amortization or depreciation strategies to name a few. Take a look at Zillow.com for the latest estimates, comparables, and sales history. It’s so easy to do research on real estate compared with researching stocks.
6) Less visible volatility. Your house value could be tanking and you would never know it since there isn’t a daily ticker symbol. During bad times, the utility of your home really helps soften the blow as you enjoy your home and create great memories. During the 2008-2009 downturn, I still got to enjoy my vacation property in Lake Tahoe 15-20 days a year even though values were plunging. Meanwhile, looking at the TV or computer screen just made me mad. When your investment is less volatile, it’s much easier to stay the course and not sell at the bottom.
7) A source of pride. Making money for money’s sake is a pretty empty feeling. Every time I drive by my rental properties I feel proud to have made the purchases years ago. I know that my money is working as hard as possible so I don’t have to. Real estate is a constant reminder that taking calculated risks over time pays off. There is an indescribable feeling nobody tells you once you’ve closed on your property. Even though the bank probably owns most of it in the beginning, you literally feel like the King or Queen of your castle. When you die, you can pass on your pride to your children or closest companions to let them create their own memories.
8) More insulated. Real estate is local. If you’ve made a good decision to buy in an economically strong region, you will be more insulated from the national economy or the global economy. Spain blowing up is likely not going to affect the rent you can charge. Look at prices in superstar cities such as Manhattan, Hong Kong, Singapore, London, Paris, and San Francisco. They fall the least, recover the soonest and gain the most. Of course, industries in your area could suddenly disappear and leave you broken as well.
9) The government is on your side. Not only do you get generous mortgage interest tax deductions and tax free profits, you get bailouts if you can’t pay your mortgage. The government also aggressively went after banks to force them to extend loan modifications to bad and good creditors. I even got a free loan mod recently to my surprise. Programs such as HARP 1.0 and HARP 2.0 are allowing folks without hefty downpayments to get in on the action. There are plenty of non-recourse states such as California and Nevada which don’t go after your other assets if you decide to stop paying your mortgage and squat for months. When was the last time the government bailed individual investors out of their stock investments?
REASONS WHY STOCKS ARE BETTER THAN REAL ESTATE
1) Higher rate of return. Stocks have historically returned ~8% a year compared to 2-4% for real estate over the past 60 years. You can also go on margin to boost your returns, however, I don’t recommend this strategy given your brokerage account will force you to liquidate holdings to come up with cash when things go the other way. Your bank can’t force you to come up with cash or move out so long as you are paying your mortgage.
2) Much more liquid. If you don’t like a stock or need immediate cash, you can easily sell your stock holdings. If you need to cash out of real estate you could potentially take out a home equity line of credit, but it’s costly and takes at least a month.
3) Lower transaction costs. Online transaction costs are under $10 a trade no matter how much you have to buy or sell. The real estate industry is still an oligopoly which still fixes commissions at a ridiculously high level of 5-6%. You would think the invention of Trulia would lower transaction costs, but unfortunately they’ve done very little to help lower expenses. They are in cahoots with the National Association of Realtors. This is part of the reason why I don’t fully trust Zillow.
4) Less work. Real estate takes constant managing due to maintenance, conflicts with neighbors, and tenant rotation. Stocks can literally be left alone forever and pay out dividends to investors. Without maintenance you’re able to focus your attention elsewhere such as spending time with family, your business, or traveling the world. You can easily pay a mutual fund manager 0.5% a year to pick stocks for you or hire a financial advisor at 1% a year.
5) More variety. Unless you are super rich, you can’t own properties in Honolulu, San Francisco, Rio, Amsterdam and all the other great cities of the world. With stocks you can not only invest in different countries, you can also invest in various sectors. A well diversified stock portfolio could very well be less volatile than a property portfolio.
6) Invest in what you use. One of the most fun aspects about the stock market is that you can invest in what you use. Let’s say you are a huge fan of Apple products, McDonald’s cheeseburgers, and Lululemon yoga pants. You can simply buy AAPL, MCD, and LULU. It’s a great feeling to not only use the products you invest in, but make money off your investments.
7) Tax benefits. Long term capital gains and dividend income are taxed at lower rates than the top three W2 income rates (28%, 33%, 35%). If you can build your financial nut large enough so that the majority of your income comes from dividends, you could lower your marginal tax rate by as much as 20% or so, depending on the current legislation.
8) Hedging is easier. You can protect your real estate investments through insurance. If disaster strikes, it’s often a pain to get your insurance company to pay for damages because the burden is on you to prove your claim. With stocks, you can easily short stocks or buy inverse ETFs to protect your portfolio from downside risk.
CHARACTERISTICS MOST SUITABLE FOR REAL ESTATE AND STOCKS
* Believe wealth is made up of real assets not paper.
* Know where you want to live for at least five years.
* Do not do well in volatile environments.
* Easily spooked by downturns.
* Tend to buy and sell too often. High transaction costs ironically keep you from trading too often.
* Enjoy interacting with people.
* Takes pride in ownership.
* Likes to feel more in control.
* Happy to give up control to those who should know better.
* Can stomach volatility.
* Have tremendous discipline not to chase rallies and sell when things are imploding.
* Likes to trade.
* Enjoy studying economics, politics, and researching stocks.
* Don’t want to be tied down.
* Have a limited amount of capital to invest.
NO BAD CHOICES IN A BULL MARKET
The choice between investing in real estate or stocks is like choosing between eating a chocolate cake or a hot fudge sundae. Both are good provided that you don’t go overboard. When you are younger, investing in stocks is easier and makes more sense since you have less money and are more mobile. As you get older you probably want to set some roots so owning at least your primary residence is beneficial.
My preference is towards real estate because of utility and leverage. If my real estate holdings go up by 5%, my cash on cash return is actually 25% with a 20% downpayment. I like enjoying my property or at least seeing the things I own. If my vacation property doesn’t make any money, that’s fine because it’s all about the experiences. Driving by my main rental property on the way to play tennis brings joy each time. Now that I’ve paid off my rental property mortgage after 12 years in 2015, I can use the condo as a pied de terre or an asset that will provide recurring passive income forever.
With stocks, it’s terrific to see portfolios go up. But after a while, it becomes unsatisfying to see more money accumulate in a digital wealth management account like Wealthfront. Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have your money managed automatically at a low cost. Being able to readily access your money to buy things is also great. But money needs to be spent on something, otherwise, what’s the point of saving and investing?
Whatever you do, don’t own nothing. Inflation will rob you of your financial happiness when you are older and less willing or able to work. Own assets that rise with inflation. Let’s just pray the bear market doesn’t return, but it sure seems like things are slowing for 2016 and beyond.
RECOMMENDATIONS TO BUILD WEALTH
* Manage Your Finances In One Place: The best way to become financially independent and protect yourself is to get a handle on your finances by signing up with Personal Capital. They are a free online platform which aggregates all your financial accounts in one place so you can see where you can optimize. Before Personal Capital, I had to log into eight different systems to track 25+ difference accounts (brokerage, multiple banks, 401K, etc) to manage my finances. Now, I can just log into Personal Capital to see how my stock accounts are doing and how my net worth is progressing. I can also see how much I’m spending every month.
The best tool is their Portfolio Fee Analyzer which runs your investment portfolio through its software to see what you are paying. I found out I was paying $1,700 a year in portfolio fees I had no idea I was paying! They also recently launched the best Retirement Planning Calculator around, using your real data to run thousands of algorithms to see what your probability is for retirement success. Once you register, simply click the Advisor Tolls and Investing tab on the top right and then click Retirement Planner. There’s no better free tool online to help you track your net worth, minimize investment expenses, and manage your wealth. Why gamble with your future?
* Invest Your Money Efficiently: Wealthfront, the leading digital wealth advisor, is an excellent choice for those who want the lowest fees and can’t be bothered with actively managing their money themselves once they’ve gone through the discovery process. All you’ll be responsible for is methodically contributing to your investment account over time to build wealth.
In the long run, it is very hard to outperform any index, therefore, the key is to pay the lowest fees possible while being invested in the market. Wealthfront charges $0 in fees for the first $15,000 if you sign up via my link and only 0.25% for any money over $10,000. You don’t even have to fund your account to see the various ETF portfolios they’ll build for you based off your risk-tolerance. Invest your idle money cheaply, instead of letting it lose purchasing power due to inflation.
About the Author: Sam began investing his own money ever since he opened an online brokerage account online in 1995. Sam loved investing so much that he decided to make a career out of investing by spending the next 13 years after college working at Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse Group. During this time, Sam received his MBA from UC Berkeley with a focus on finance and real estate. He also became Series 7 and Series 63 registered. In 2012, Sam was able to retire at the age of 34 largely due to his investments that now generate roughly $175,000 a year in passive income. He spends time playing tennis, hanging out with family, consulting for leading fintech companies, and writing online to help others achieve financial freedom.
Updated for 2017 and beyond.